Coalition unveils effort to preserve, enhance Blackfoot, Bitterroot, Clark Fork rivers

“We have been loving (rivers) to death. And it’s time to fix that. And the only way we will fix that is collaboration, the confluence of all the people who are here. And I feel super optimistic that we can do this and make some hard choices,” Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Good things supposedly come in threes, and floaters and anglers are showing that’s true with Missoula’s rivers: the Blackfoot, Bitterroot and Clark Fork. But the rivers’ increasing popularity requires that steps be taken to keep them that good.

On Thursday night, about 80 outdoor recreation and river enthusiasts hobnobbed on the second floor of the Conflux Brewing Company while learning about a framework that 18 agencies and organizations have been developing to preserve area rivers, particularly the Clark Fork.

Clusters of young kayakers and rafters in fleece and ski hats hobnobbed with silver-bearded anglers wearing Simms and Trout Unlimited ball caps. Along the walls, displays highlighted river projects, maps and future development possibilities that people were asked to rate.

Thrilled with the turnout, Pelah Hoyt of Five Valleys Land Trust asked people to attend six more meetings scheduled this year, so they can help solidify the fledgling effort.

“The rivers running through Missoula and around Missoula are packed with people,” Hoyt said. “It’s so good to see people getting out and connecting with the river, but it’s creating some challenges.”

Some younger attendees probably spent at least one summer tubing down the Clark Fork from the makeshift put-in near Bonner to Caras Park and beyond. Hoyt said last summer’s surveys showed an average of 52 floaters an hour passed under the Madison Street bridge during the peak season. An average of 72 floaters an hour bobbed past the Sha-ron fishing access site above East Missoula.

That’s led to landowner complaints as cars clog roads, floaters trespass and garbage accumulates along the river channel. And the pressure will increase as Missoula continues to grow.

Still, Hoyt remembers just a few decades ago when no one floated or swam in the abused, contaminated Clark Fork River.

“Some are wondering if this use is harming the river and wondering if we should reduce use. Others are saying they want more use,” Hoyt said. “We’ve realized in this Three Rivers Collaborative that this is a good problem to have. We have thousands of people who care about our rivers and want to spend time with them. But we’ve got to engage all these folks in caring for the river.”

For the past year, the groups brainstormed the values, vision and objectives of the Three Rivers Collaborative, which they rolled out on Thursday. Then they asked attendees for their input on what the collaborative should look like and what aspects of rivers were most important to them.

A TRC questionnaire asked which of 13 objectives should receive the most emphasis, from gathering good data or restoring riverside habitat to improving river access or outreach for schools and river users.

All of those goals and tasks will play a part in the effort. But leaders want to know what Missoulians care about most while they try to balance growth with a good quality of life and maintaining a more natural feel.

Participants at Thursday night’s gathering were asked to rate their priorities for the rivers. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

Rachel VandeVoort, director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation, said Missoulians need to appreciate what a treasure they have and preserve it, not just use it. As a former river guide, VandeVoort watched tourists’ awed reactions to the rivers and vistas that Montanans see every day.

“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know what they have, but clearly, I have it good,’ ” VandeVoort said. “We can talk about the economic impact, and that’s what we’re doing, we’re talking about the dollars and cents behind this. But we all know intrinsically this is what we need to do for our way of life. This is what’s important to us. And it’s groups like this that get stuff done.”

Meanwhile, city representatives were available to answer questions about the Downtown Master Plan and 11 active projects intended to restore or improve the river, including the Max Wave, Russell Street Bridge, Milltown State Park and the Bonner Bridges Project.

Clark Fork Coalition science adviser Vicki Watson was also recruiting people to help create a watershed restoration plan for the central Clark Fork River.

While surfing the Department of Environmental Quality website, she came across a map that showed almost every watershed in western Montana had a restoration plan, which means that those areas can apply for funding to do restoration.

“Then I looked closer and said, ‘What?! The central Clark Fork doesn’t have a restoration plan?’ ” Watson said.

So Watson is doing the same thing as the collaborative: asking people to contribute their expertise to developing a restoration plan so more can be done to improve the Clark Fork River corridor downstream.

As more people recreate, the rivers are going to need well-devised plans to nurture them through the ravages of time.

County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said such a looming challenge needed everyone’s involvement.

“We have been loving (rivers) to death. And it’s time to fix that. And the only way we will fix that is collaboration, the confluence of all the people who are here. And I feel super optimistic that we can do this and make some hard choices,” Slotnick said.

The next meeting is March 14 at 4 p.m. at the Montana Natural History Center.

The collaborative includes: Five Valleys Land Trust; the Clark Fork Coalition; Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks; Trout Unlimited; Backcountry Hunters and Anglers; American Rivers; Five Valleys Audubon Society; Missoula County Parks, Trails & Open Lands; Missoula Conservation District; University of Montana; W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation; Trailhead River Sports; Downtown Missoula Partnership; Mountain Line; Strongwater; and Missoula Parks and Recreation.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.